A Week On The Wrist: The IWC Portugieser Chronograph
The less you do, the more you do.
Originally published by Danny Milton on HODINKEE, October 14th 2020
One of the more unique leading men in Hollywood’s golden age was Robert Mitchum. You see, he didn’t act in the traditional sense of the word. Rather, Mitchum was himself, which is exactly what audiences expected when they paid their hard-earned money for a ticket to see his films. He is on record for having once said, “I kept the same suit for six years and the same dialogue. They just changed the title of the picture and the leading lady.” Talk about self-awareness. But there is something to be said about the notion that the core of something (or someone, in Mitchum’s case) does not need to change in order to persist. The title and the leading lady are extremely important aspects of a film, but if the star of the picture has the right stuff, well… just ride that wave.
In the world of watches, there are a few examples which are emblematic of this idea. Think of the Rolex Submariner, the Omega Speedmaster, or even the AP Royal Oak. These watches are the movie stars. The IWC Portugieser Chronograph holds a similar station within the International Watch Company as those aforementioned models do to their respective brands. It is a foundational piece in the modern IWC collection, and it represents the idea that not all iconic watches need have been produced in the 1960s and ’70s. The IWC Portugieser Chronograph is Robert Mitchum. It has a sense of style, a sense of identity, and only requires minor tweaks here and there over time, but the essence always remains. That’s what people appreciate about it.
This is actually my second go-around spending time with this watch, having previously gone Hands-On with it in April. Not much about my opinions have changed, but having now spent a week with it on my wrist, some of those opinions – or notions – have become more deeply entrenched in my psyche. During my week with this watch, I tried not to augment anything about my daily routine, just to see how the watch kept up – if it interfered in any way, and how (if at all) it improved anything I did. I am talking things as innocuous as brewing a pot of morning coffee, or the more active task of sitting down to play the guitar. It was my full intention to put this watch through its paces, but I will warn you – especially in these crazy times – I don’t live the most extreme lifestyle. If you’re hoping to hear stories about how this watch fares skydiving, or on the racetrack, you’ve come to the wrong place.
Late-20th-Century Design Heritage
The middle of the 20th century (read: mid-century) brought so much “newness” to the table, so much design innovation. So many things – watches in particular – produced today trace their roots to designs created during this time. IWC is one of the few brands which can really trace most of its current lineup to late-century (i.e. 1990’s) design ideals. The Mark series was notably revived in this time, as well as the core of its pilot watch lineup – the Dopplechronograph included. It was in 1995 that IWC released a watch which would serve as the foundational design for the Portugieser Chronograph. That watch was the IWC Portugieser Rattrapante Ref. 3712, a split-seconds chronograph which was powered by a rattrapante movement developed by Richard Habring (and one that was later discontinued). The watch itself would also be discontinued before a revival in 2016. But in the intervening years, the Portugieser Chronograph took its place in the IWC lineup.
1998 saw the introduction of the IWC Portugieser Chronograph, a tilting pinion chronograph with applied numerals, a large – almost bezel-less – 41mm case, and a leather strap. Well, not much has changed in the 22 years since that release. In fact, in terms of aesthetics, the watch has been an absolute model of consistency. It actually takes guts to actively not change something as much as IWC did not change the Portugieser Chronograph in this time. The only other watch that I can think of in a similar vein is the Omega Speedmaster Professional, but there are practical reasons behind its stability – namely a lot of red tape associated with it keeping its NASA flight qualifications. Well, the IWC Portugieser Chronograph is no space watch, and has no restrictions leveled upon it to maintain its appearance. The watch just works, and IWC knows it, which is why it has remained the way it has for 22 years.
For the first 21 years of production, the watch was powered by the Valjoux/ETA 7750 movement. At some point, the supply of movements also came from Sellita. As these were not in-house calibers, they sat concealed behind a closed caseback. That notwithstanding, IWC is well known for the work it does on its ebauches, often adjusting and regulating non-in-house movements to great levels of accuracy and performance. In the years since the release of the Portugieser Chronograph, the watch has become arguably the most popular watch in the Portugieser lineup and can very well be considered an icon in its own right.
How To Change Without Changing
In January of this year, IWC announced the release of an updated Portugieser Chronograph. I will admit, when I saw the photos, I was blown away. Literally nothing – at least at first blush – had changed. This was the same watch I had come to know, only there was a significant change under the hood: The brand new in-house caliber 69355. This is a column-wheel, vertical-clutch chronograph movement made by IWC, keeping with a recent trend by the brand to bring much of its movement making in-house. Consider this change the new title of the film in the Hollywood analogy referenced earlier. The new movement is the differentiator between this watch and the others which came before, but the overall design – unchanged – is the star. Just like Robert Mitchum, this watch remains true to form, save for one other thing – the leading lady. That, of course, would be the sapphire caseback. Whereas the watch sported a closed caseback for two decades, this new model got the full exposition treatment. I mean, if you have a new movement, why hide it?
As mentioned, very little has changed about the watch with the release of the updated movement, which is actually a really savvy move by IWC. If I were in the market for this watch, I would hate to see a new movement introduced in tandem with an overhaul of the design. In fact, I would want exactly what took place – a technical improvement without sacrificing a design that just works, for lack of a better word.
When I wrote my Hands-On piece with this watch, there was a commenter who questioned why IWC did not reduce the case diameter of the watch from 41mm with the introduction of the new movement. I actually got to talking with one of my colleagues about this (I won’t name names). They made the analogy to me that, at least in IWC circles, the Portugieser Chronograph is essentially the brand’s Submariner. Even the slightest of changes would have a major impact on those who have come to love the watch. Mind you, this conversation took place prior to Rolex announcing the 41mm Submariner, but you get the idea.
The new caliber 69355 is what many consider to be a classic movement size, which therefore can be deployed in a wide variety of watches. Even though the movement size technically affords IWC the ability to decrease the diameter of the case, any change to the size of the watch would fundamentally disrupt a design that has persisted for so many years. Another comment on the movement that I wish to address came from a commenter who said that, while the open caseback is a welcome addition, they found it to be somewhat like having an open caseback for the sake of having an open caseback – as if IWC wanted simply to “tick that box.” To that point, I believe you could say that about any watch, really. This is all very subjective stuff – at this level – especially when it comes to whether or not the level of finishing on a movement does anything for you. But I have to say, this is not a bad looking movement by any standard, and I enjoyed looking at it during my time with the watch.
Continuing with this, I also recall seeing a comment in the Hands-On on the topic of the bona fides of the movement itself. The comment was addressing the fact that the movement is based on another IWC chronograph caliber, which is in turn based on an ETA caliber. To this point, I would say that one would have to qualify what “derived” really means in this context. This watch has a different clutch system and skeletonized escape wheel, which was the result of IWC research and development. The new 69355 caliber possibly has the same regulator, but regulators are outsourced anyway – in-house or not. Moreover, different watchmakers have been taking each other’s work as a jumping-off point for as long as watches have been made. There are only so many options and solutions, so, in reality, there is really no such thing as a completely in-house movement – people borrow from each other all the time, and it is all a part of the game.
On The Wrist
When it comes to a watch like this – with a design and size that is known and expected – there is a certain amount of the wearer adapting to the watch, as opposed to it being the other way around. You buy this watch because you want this watch, and most of the time, you know what you’re getting into. For those who do not, I will say that it manages to scratch two distinct itches: That of the sport chronograph, as well as the more “dressy” – stately – chronograph. There is a certain understated elegance and self-assuredness to the entire package of this watch that allows for a great deal of versatility in terms of wear.
The case size, as mentioned, is 41mm, but a number alone does not tell the complete story. The watch effectively has no bezel at all. Given that the model I wore was the silver dial variant, the watch wears larger than the 41mm diameter would suggest as the silver dial (similar to a white-dial watch) gives off the illusion that the watch is much larger than it is. This size notwithstanding, I expected the piece to wear a bit bigger on wrist going in. There were no issues with the lugs hanging off the sides of my wrist, and the case laid flat and comfortably when worn. The overall thickness of the watch is about 13.1mm, which sounds tall but is virtually an imperceptible measurement when the watch is on. I did not for a moment consider this to be a thick or tall watch.
As has been the case for about 22 years, the watch is affixed to a leather strap (although recent updates have seen a change there as well). The version I had the chance to wear came on a blue alligator leather strap, which matched the blue accents on the dial. The strap itself is attached to a double deployant clasp system, which is one of the few gripes I have with this piece. For me, a watch is part of my person – something I don’t have to think about. Conversely, I take great enjoyment – at various intervals of my day – in taking off my watch, staring at it, engaging with the crown, etc. It is an object of affection, and I tend to be quite affectionate. A clasp should open and close – no need to reinvent the wheel. This clasp, being a double deployant, requires the opening of two segments in order to put the watch on, or take it off. Once the initial clasp segment is opened, it is actually not clear that a second segment needs to be undone as well (I recall spending about five minutes in a Rodin-type state trying to figure this out). Issues with the clasp function aside, it certainly keeps the watch secure to the wrist when closed, and everything wears comfortably.
What more can be said about a dial design which has persisted and resisted change all these years? Well not much, but wearing something and experiencing it in the metal definitely brings a fresh perspective. The dial here is silver, with a textured gradient pattern and accompanying radial patterns in the sub-dials. A hallmark of the design of this watch is the applied set of numerals which adorn the dial. The style of the numerals themselves evokes a more classic era of watchmaking. In contrast to this classic ideal is the text applied to the right- and left-most sections of the dial surface. In a lot of ways, the motif embodied there is something more akin to mid-century design. The combination of both of these elements is unmistakably IWC, however.
Especially on this model, the idea of contrast is perpetuated through a number of elements, each in blue. There is a set of applied blue circular markings representing the minutes, which surround the dial along with the numerals. Every single one of the hands, including the leaf handset for hours and minutes, is also done in blue. The way the blue works off of the silver, and matches with the strap, creates a nice uniformity in the design of this watch overall.
Something which I came to appreciate more in person was the angled chapter ring configuration. Internal scales (meaning, not printed on an external bezel) often result in a shrinking of the surface area of the dial and therefore decrease the legibility of the important functions of the watch. Here, with the sloped configuration, there appears to be no space lost, and in turn, nothing feels overcrowded. There is ample room to breathe on this dial.
Speaking of room to breathe, let’s focus on the 12 and six applied numerals. Now, cut off numerals – or dial text – on a chronograph is nothing new. In fact, it is something which has been done in watchmaking, and watch design, for years and years. (It is almost ubiquitous in pocket watches.) Here, however, I found this wasn’t so much an obscuring of the numerals, as much as they appear to be sliced (note the gaps between the numerals and sub-dials). On the other hand, I understand the reason for this, given that it would be hard to overlay a sub-dial atop an applied numeral.
I am not necessarily a chronograph guy per se, but each time I wear one, I get a ton of enjoyment out of engaging with the mechanism. Here is no exception, and the action of the pushers is crisp and satisfying. The great thing about a no-date chronograph is, even for a novice watch person, there is really little to no learning curve – and the functions are quite intuitive. As I said in the introduction, my life is not particularly exciting, or extreme, but I nonetheless found ways to put the chronograph to use in mundane day-to-day tasks – and the watch actually made them more enjoyable. If I were to make one comment about the movement, at least substantively, it would be that it is a tad bit loud. This is something I expect – namely the noise of the rotor turning with the movement of my wrist – from lower-priced watches, but it was definitely unexpected here.
To be frank, this is a watch that, when you put it on, feels very personal. It has no pre-conceived narrative attached to it, and therefore, the story is yours to write. This idea allowed me a sense of freedom in the wearing experience, wherein I did not feel I needed to live up to race car drivers, astronauts, or other professionals who have far more important uses for a chronograph. I wore this watch on walks with my wife and puppy, while playing music, and while watching some of my favorite films. Given the watch’s mixed aesthetic of sport and dress, I also did not feel compelled to match a specific attire with it. No matter how I dressed, it worked just fine.
Overall, on the wrist, and despite the size, the IWC Portugieser Chronograph wears very comfortably, especially on the leather strap. In fact, I find this silver and blue variant to be the most versatile within the lineup because it gives off a certain air of levity and fun, while the others (with gold accents for example) present as a bit more conservative. While wearing the watch, I would look down and immediately understand why this design has permeated the horological consciousness in such a profound way, and thereby lasted as long as it has.
By equipping the IWC Portugieser Chronograph with the new in-house caliber 69355, IWC moved this watch into a new category altogether. What’s more, the brand did not increase the price by much with this change – which now sits at $7,950. There was a time when in-house chronographs were quite a rarity – but that is changing more and more each day. As it stands, there are quite a lot of watches ranging from about $4,000 to $10,000 offering a mixture of style, heritage, and in-house watchmaking which compete in the same category as the Portugieser Chronograph. Below, I have assembled a small representative sampling of some of those watches.
Yes, indeed – some “in the family” competition. Just last year, predating the movement change to the Portugieser Chronograph, IWC fitted the Chronograph Spitfire with its own in-house movement, the caliber 69830. While decidedly more sporty, with a direct vintage aesthetic, this is certainly a contender for those looking at the more tool-watch end of the spectrum. The Chronograph Spitfire carries the same 41mm diameter with a slightly thicker case, but gives you all of the in-house vertical-clutch chronograph goodness in a package just south of $6,000.
I was always going to put a Speedmaster on this list, but I got lucky that this particular model was released when it was – if for no other reason than the fact that it is a competitively blue in-house chronograph. At 42mm in diameter, this is larger than the Portugieser, and it is a manual wind. But don’t let that get in the way of good competition. This is the METAS certified 3861 movement, boasting industry-leading accuracy. Sure, this watch is a bit out of the price range at $9,600, but c’mon… Snoopy flies around the Moon!
If we are talking about classic, mostly unchanged chronograph designs, then the Zenith El Primero has to be in the conversation. Of course, its heritage dates back to the 1960s. With this watch, we have the famed in-house El Primero movement, the signature design flourishes of red and blue, as well as the iconic Zenith star on the chronograph seconds hand. This is a smaller watch compared to the Portugieser at 38mm, but with it, you get a classically sized watch and a package that sells for $7,700 – which puts this watch squarely in the ballpark.
The Carrera 160 Years Limited Edition is something of an homage piece, so it doesn’t represent the same modern design ideal that the Portugieser Chronograph does, but it offers the same versatile wearability and styling, LE notwithstanding. Sure, it has faux patina and an intentionally racing-inspired heritage, but it also has a silver dial. At 39mm, the Carrera 160 Years Limited Edition is right in the mix in terms of size and also boasts the in-house caliber 02 movement. This is a watch that might not be around forever, but at the price of $6,450, it is certainly a competitive entrant into the conversation here.
So, what is old is made new again. I am glad I got to spend as much time as I did with the IWC Portugieser Chronograph, because I learned a thing or two about the power of good design, and the sort of inexplicability behind the things which take on a certain iconic status. Without a doubt, the Portugieser Chronograph is something of an icon, especially in the pantheon of IWC. There are many out there who recall the day they bought this watch anywhere from 15 to 20 years ago, and still wear it to this day. It is a watch which serves as a differentiator from the more obvious sport watch choices out there, and for many, it represents buying that first nice watch. There are not many classics which came to prominence in the 21st century, and so this watch should, in many ways, be applauded for that.
Our friend Robert Mitchum – among the many salacious things he was known to rattle off – said, “I’ve still got the same attitude I had when I started. I haven’t changed anything but my underwear.” I find the IWC Portugieser Chronograph to embody this very sentiment, strange as it is. The watch has a very specific sort of attitude, one which has carried it through the better part of two decades without fail. The underwear? Well, let’s just equate that to the movement and move along.
In short, anyone who is looking to get something versatile, that represents precision timekeeping, from a heritage brand, is going to really appreciate what IWC has done here. IWC has kept the design the same but made the actual watch empirically better, and that’s not nothing. Moreover, they kept that package under $8,000 in the process. Typically, I am a steel-sports-watch-on-a-bracelet kind of guy, but there is something about this watch which fills that same void. This is a watch that is fully realized and game for anything – well, except swimming (please don’t take it swimming). It has a certain Goldilocks “just right” charm to it that makes it fit into any environment you need it to. You can change the title, cast a new leading lady, and even buy new underwear, but the IWC Portugieser Chronograph endures.
For more on the IWC Portuguese Chronograph, visit IWC online.
Photos: Kasia Milton